Creativity: Spiritual Battle and Spiritual Discipline

Creativity: Spiritual Battle and Spiritual Discipline

[Adapted from the Hutchmoot 2013 session of the same title.]

Last week, I penned a sonnet, and it was seriously one of the hardest things I have ever written. My husband all but dared me to do it, throwing down the bright challenge as we walked on the beach one night, and I accepted it with a mixture of excitement and terror. Excitement, because there’s nothing like the wordplay of poetry that wakens all my sensibilities and helps me distill those feelings that “do often lie too deep for tears.” But with the thrill came the cold fear that accosts me every single time I sit down to write—the mute despair that not only could I “not do it again”, but that I never had been able to do it in the first place. I confided to Philip that I’ve always felt I couldn’t say I wrote poetry until I’d tackled the sonnet—and I’m so afraid of sonnets. The exquisite discipline of the form shines a terrible light on my insecurities and inadequacies—so terrible, in fact, that I don’t think I would ever have attempted it if my husband hadn’t nudged me to try. I simply don’t believe that other people struggle with creativity the way that I do. I imagine every other artist that has ever lived simply gushing creativity in an endless torrent of words or notes or color—no matter what they insist otherwise. When I hear someone say what a struggle it is for them to create, I can’t help but imagine this huge, universal conspiracy to keep me from giving up.

At any rate, I got to work—what else is there to do? I dumped all my images and impressions and candidates for metaphor into my notebook and then I alternately thought and determinedly did not think about it for a couple of days. Tuesday morning I sat on the seawall with a blank page—and a suddenly blank mind. Panic fluttered, raven-like, about the fringes of my mind and that pernicious despair started to rise, drowning sweet ambition in a flood of self-consciousness. Who was I kidding? What did I have to say? And if I somehow managed to corral these wild horses of emotion into measureable verse, of what use could it possibly be to the world?

In the death grip of such doubts, I laid down a line. Then I scratched it out and scribbled another. I added a word; I took two words away. I fought for that quatrain like my life depended on it—for, of course, in a small way, it did. The next day, I did it again, and it was even harder. The despair was icier; the fear of failure suffocating. If the first day’s task was difficult, this one’s was impossible. Like wrestling angels to the ground—and I was way too timid to demand a blessing. When that quatrain was in the bag four hours later, I was completely exhausted—and strangely kindled. Elated. On the day after I came to my work with a quaking heart, prepared for long travail. I sharpened my pencil and took a deep breath—and the next thing I knew, it was done. The words tumbled out in a final heap, and I sat there in the sun, reading and re-reading just to make sure, utterly astonished. It wasn’t perfect, of course—but it was finished, and I knew it. And I was content. I left that place where I had written my sonnet a little weak in the knees—it seemed holy, somehow, sanctified by a battle of spiritual proportions. Almost what the ancient Celts would call a “thin place,” a place where the veil between the seen and the unseen fades.

It occurred to me the next day that writing that sonnet was a lot like the overall experience of my creative life. It was a microcosm of the fears I face, the tooth and nail battle for every line, the sudden, rare, bright cascade of words. Not only that, it was a lot like prayer. In living metaphor it spanned the distance between supposedly separate realities, and connected my creative life and my spiritual life in a tangible way. My struggle to wrestle a heart-full of disparate emotions into fourteen lines of verse reminded me keenly of my walk with Christ: I come to Him with all these messy yearnings and inclinations—some holy, some not so much—and through the travail of prayer, He helps me sort and order them: confess, toss, keep, and listen. Tweak my desires and emotions into something a little more in tune with the song He’s singing over my life. One of the biggest surprises of my adulthood was that the Christian life is hard. “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare,” said Spinoza, and it’s a rite of passage to learn it. I’ll never forget reading Sayer’s translation of the Purgatorio about ten years ago and coming across the passage where Dante and Virgil are scrabbling up the mountain on their hands and knees:

“My son, “said he, “drag thyself onward—look!
. . . His words were such a goad,
I strained to follow, and with desperate pressure
Crawled on—crawled up—and on the terrace stood.

“Oh,” I thought, with a glorious sense of relief. “It’s supposed to be like that.”

Indeed, sometimes it is. But it was hard for me to reconcile the challenges of a faithful walk with Christ with the “first fine careless rapture” I had known as a teenager in my earliest acquaintance with Him. Likewise, when I began writing seriously as an adult, I was rather disheartened to realize that stories didn’t seem to spin themselves out of thin air the way they had when I was seventeen and unfettered with grownup anxieties and insecurities. But there’s just something about travail that makes the prize all the more precious. A woman who has delivered a baby “no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.” Even the dizzy enchantment of scribbling stories by candlelight in my bedroom as a girl cannot compare, sweet as it was, to the satisfaction of that one sonnet that I sweated blood over. And nothing has made Jesus more precious to me than the hard passes we’ve come through together: the doubts He’s not despised, the weaknesses and failures and sudden flashes of eternal joys we’ve weathered together.

One of the things that I love about writing is that it images my faith—it brings forth something that wasn’t before in answer to Something that always has been and always will be: “calling things that were not as though they were,” lending unseen realities “a local habitation and a name.” And one of the things that has helped me connect my art and my faith in a profoundly tangible way has been the concept of Spiritual Discipline.

Artists and Christians are no strangers to discipline. Though it may not be a popular word in our day, discipline is the backbone of our efforts and aspirations. In keeping with tradition, the arts are known collectively as the Disciplines—though I find it interesting that it wasn’t until the Renaissance that we got highfalutin enough to make a distinction between the “artistic” crafts, like painting and poetry, and the so-called “non-artistic” crafts, like bread-making and ironwork. Twyla Tharp has made a masterful case for artistic discipline in her book The Creative Habit, and I would encourage anyone remotely serious about pursuing creative endeavors to give her words a good, long think. Remember, an act does not have to generate money in order to be legitimately creative, nor does it have to be applauded by the masses. Obedience to an inner call is the only standard worth considering.

The roots of Spiritual Discipline run deep, back to the earliest days of our faith. For generations, the saints of God, ordinary men and women who loved God in an extraordinary way, have made an effort to connect the two worlds we inhabit—the seen and the unseen—by simple practices that have come to be known as the Spiritual Disciplines. By doing certain things again and again, things that can be tasted or touched or experienced, God’s people have faithfully practiced their faith in Him. They have literally acted out what they know to be true; they have trained themselves with things like prayer and fasting and worship and solitude to remember what is real, even when they cannot see it. Like skilled athletes, they have worked hard to bring their lives closer and closer to what God had in mind for us all along, to make that gap between the seen and the unseen smaller, to lift their hearts and minds up to heaven, and to bring the miracle of Christ’s actual life in us down to earth.

There is no set “list” of Spiritual Disciplines—I would venture to say that there are as many candidates for discipline as there are saints to perform them. They are not punishments or penances or ways to make God love you more—that’s impossible; that’s legalism. Legalism is a fraud, a fake, a shriveled imposter beside this benevolent giant of our tradition. Legalism is like one of those programs into which you can plug all the elements for “writing” a formulaic novel, claiming one way to a prescribed end; Spiritual Discipline flaunts a thousand doors opening on a fathomless beginning. Spiritual discipline is nothing more and nothing less than a practical, physical act that places these very human bodies of ours in willing submission to the Divine. It is not an appeasement for wrong-doing but a celebration of relationship. The disciplines move us, as Dallas Willard says, “to live as our hearts tell us we should.”

Discipline puts skin and bones on our love—it is to our faith what the barre exercises are to the ballerina or the scales and arpeggios to the concert pianist. The artists never grow out of these things—they always need them to keep their bodies and fingers limber, flexible, familiar with their craft. We, too, need hands-on rehearsals; we are tangible, touchable human bodies, and we need to practice what it means to be a new creation. I don’t even begin to claim any sort of mastery here—the very idea is laughable—but I can say to the degree that the lines between creativity and spirituality have blurred in my life, my work has taken on a holy significance, releasing me into a place where I can draw closer to God in the hours spent alone at my desk, hours that I otherwise might be tempted to view as selfish or meaningless or downright foolhardy.

We are created in the image of a Creator, and Art is one of the ways that we enflesh our identity. The act of creation is at once humbling and ennobling—and it’s as intensely personal as it gets. When God made the world, He did the creating out of the full expression of His three-fold identity, as inseparable from His creation as the mother and father are from the child they have conceived. There is such a tender image of the intimacy of the Godhead in that simple phrase, “Let us make man in our image.” Man’s creation, like God’s, is one of the most intimate things—if not the most intimate—that we are capable of. That’s why I believe that creativity itself is a valid candidate for a Spiritual Discipline: because it becomes a physical act by which we incarnate some aspect of an invisible relationship. Bringing our creativity under the banner of a Spiritual Discipline can help us—particularly if we are the type of person who sees things clearly in image and symbol—to come into contact with this mystery of co-creation, to touch the God-spark of originality embedded in our human frame.

If you think about it for a moment, it’s really staggering that we are made this way—we are made to want to make. We are made to want to be just like our Father when we grow up, and to leave some imprint of ourselves on the world behind us. There is no compulsion about the thing; it is an invitation, an introduction to our truest self. When God was giving instructions to the craftsmen for the building of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament (Ex. 35), He repeated this refrain: All who were willing and had the skill. It’s two sides of the same blade—Will and Skill.

The Will carries the sense of presenting what we have and what we are as material for practical devotion. The Skill, while one might argue has its original source in the divine spark, the unique giftings of our personality, comes down in the end to practical discipline. There is no skill where there has been no blood, sweat, and tears. As Twyla Tharp says, “Art is a vast democracy of habit.” If the Will means offering up, the Skill means showing up. And when our personal acts of creation take on the significance of a spiritual transaction, an act of devotion, I think we begin to glimpse what it can really mean to be not only created in the image of a Creator, but co-creators with Him. We serve a gracious God who is not threatened by our artistic attempts or human talents as the classical gods and goddesses always seemed to be, but who invites us wide-armed into this place of infinite possibility with Him.

But if creativity is an invitation, it’s also a limitation. In the most glorious of all the glorious paradoxes by which God has expressed His limitless heart to the world, we find our freedom protected, preserved, actualized by boundary and limit. Chesterton imaged it as children playing on the side of a cliff, the dangerous precipice of which is hedged by a sturdy fence: we go over the fence to our peril—but within the fence, party down, kids! I think it’s not only helpful, but essential, to translate this truth into our creative lives if we’re going to find real satisfaction, both as believers and artists. Seeing all my different passions developing as a teenager, my grandmother used to caution me against being “jack of all trades, master of none.” Though I laughed indulgently at the time, I’ve grown to see some wisdom in her words. Part of the discipline of creativity is an essential selectiveness: the sonnet limits itself to one metaphor, which is developed and then manipulated with a twist; though tastes vary, a story generally arcs through a beginning, a middle, and an end; while the possibilities are endless within the notes of the musical scale, a ballad differs by definition from a concerto or a piano sonata. Choices are made, which give us the grand tradition upon which other works of art are built. Likewise in our creative lives, we are making choices every day, whether we realize it or not. It’s taken me a long time, and a lot of heartache, to come to the conclusion that a Yes to one thing is, by default, a No to something else. If our souls were made to dance among the stars, our bodies are still maddeningly finite entities, locked in time, bound by a very temporal 24-hour day. It is by boundary and limit that we, paradoxically, inhabit our own artistic infinity.

One of the boundaries that has helped me integrate my creativity and my spirituality is the sister-discipline of solitude. I’m a true monastic at heart, but it has been extremely hard for me to come to a place where I’m not crippled by guilt in my efforts to live in a way that, as Macrina Wiederkehr so lovingly put it, is kind to my own soul. To make choices with my days—even small ones—that are not only good for me emotionally and creatively, but that keep my heart calibrated to its true North. In a world that is whirling faster than ever, I long for soul anchors, rituals and ancient rhythms that connect me to my Center. One of the things I do, in an effort to make my days more liturgical, more centered, is to try and keep the traditional monastic hours of prayer—I want to emphasize try.  Some days it doesn’t happen at all, and there’s not a single day have I kept every one of them. But the “interruption” of a few moments of prayer in the midst of a busy day keeps me connected to the Source that makes my work meaningful, whether it’s doing the laundry or cooking a meal or writing a novel. Two practical helps have been Seven Sacred Pauses, a layperson’s guide to the monastic hours by the Benedictine sister Macrina Wiederkehr, and Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours, a series of prayerbooks divided into the seasons of the year.

Another anchor is the commitment I’ve made to show up at my desk for at least two hours a day. After years of struggling to justify the habit, it’s finally become a debt of honor—whether anything “productive” comes of it or not, I’m learning to accept this discipline as part and parcel of each day’s obedience.

In a more general sense, I seek sincerity in my choices between various opportunities: to let my Yes be Yes and my No, No. Again, this has been a thorny path for me (you can ask my husband!), but to the extent that I have learned to extend grace to my own heart—in other words, not saying Yes when my heart is saying No—my days are saner, more centered, and my love more genuine. Say No, the Lord told me a few years ago, until you can say Yes with freedom and joy.  

It’s taken me a long time to make peace with this facet of my personality; to admit without shame—even to a roomful of like-minded rabbits!—that I seem to forget everything I know about myself and about God without relatively enormous amounts of solitude. I say relatively—I think previous generations didn’t feel quite so hagridden to justify “wide spaces” in their own hearts the way we do in this efficiency-enamored era of ours. But all I know is that for as long as I can remember I have been haunted by something I have only recently begun to refer to as the Monastic Ideal—a phrase I lifted from an Elizabeth Goudge book—the sense of stepping back from the world in order to make something beautiful by which to love the world.

This is from one of Goudge’s first novels, The Middle Window, a book I would love for this passage alone, it was so life-changing:

“That’s the monastic ideal,” said Judy, “and I’ve always thought it rather selfish—a creeping away from life.”

“Then you have misunderstood it,” he said. “The monastic ideal is a core of sanity in a loathsome world, a core of sanity that spreads. Again and again men have gone into solitude to create beauty, and the beauty, created, has revolutionized a whole country.”

Judy was still unconvinced. “But if nothing can get through the mountains to contaminate your Utopia, how can the beauty you create get out into the world?”

“If you light a bonfire in a sheltered valley the protection makes such a huge blaze of it that those outside see the whole sky lit up.”

When I read those words, something elemental in me leapt to answer them. I wanted to be that bonfire in the sheltered valley, the branches consumed by holy fire! I wanted to create from a place of soul-sanity, a place where I might glance some gleaming shard of God’s image that the world might not see otherwise—and could not see, but for the darkness of this God-haunted solitude at my center. It was a moment of epiphany. And like all epiphanies, it was followed by the difficult task of following where its bright finger pointed.

Last August I was a slump. It had been one of the hardest seasons of my life, and I was living through the three remaining weeks of exile before my husband and I traveled to the coast, to an island that is my spiritual home if there ever was one. I was treading water, really. And in a total funk with my writing. Anyway, before we went I was sitting in the vet’s office with one of my dogs or cats—I can’t remember who now—and I pulled up Sarah Clarkson’s blog on my phone. (In case you didn’t know, Sarah Clarkson is one of my favorite people on the face of this earth) I started to read her latest post, a beautiful and heartfelt piece (of course!) written from Scotland where she’d journeyed on a writing trip. (Do read the piece—it’s called “Write the Rainbow.”) She was staying with this lovely, saintly, Goudge-like old woman, and while she was there, Sarah read the woman’s memoir, a chronicle of a life of adventuresome devotion. One afternoon, in a tumult of inner questions, Sarah set off on a long walk. Remembering how Venetia (isn’t that a lovely name?) wrote in her book that, occasionally, when she really needed guidance, God had given her mental signposts in the way of pictures or images or stories. Sarah made bold to ask God for the same thing: a picture of what she was to do for Him, of what her writing life looked like. In Sarah’s own words:

Instantly, I do mean instantly, a Millais painting came to my thought. It has long enchanted me for its vivid, startling image—that of a blind young girl sitting amidst a glory of a golden field with two rainbows like stairways to heaven behind her. Not a bit of it can she see. But in that painting, a small child sits next to the blind girl, peeking out from under her cloak, neck craned in awe at the glory, telling the blind one of all the beauty. And I knew in that image that my task, as a soul, but particularly as a writer, is to be that child.

Write the rainbow, God told her. Tell this broken world of things they cannot see…

I read that and my heart burned with kindred longings. But I was also mad. Sarah was having all the adventures and, besides, she’s a better writer, so, of course, God would give her a noble charge like that! But the notion of God speaking in pictures lingered, and I made up my mind to pray about it just as soon as we got back to the coast and I had my mind and heart still again.

Accordingly, I survived the intervening weeks. And then, miraculously, we were there again on our island. One morning—I think it was the first, I was so eager—I got up quite early and went for a solitary walk along the marsh. I optimistically took my little notebook, on the off chance that I “got something.” And away I sauntered, under the summer trees, into the golden stillness and warmth of a quiet August morning. When I got to the farthest bench on the path, I sat down and looked up into the live oaks above my head.

“All right, God,” I said. “I read about how You spoke to Sarah, how You gave her a picture of what it is You want her to do. You gave her an image of her writing that was unmistakable and it was very precious to her.” Silence for a moment as I gathered courage. “I’d like to ask that You would do the same for me. I’d like a picture, please—I’d like an image of what You want to do with my writing, of what my work looks like, if anything.” More silence, and in a kind of frantic despair, I spoke again. “I mean, maybe You love Sarah more than You love me—I mean, I would, if I were You—”

At that moment—I am not kidding—I was interrupted by such a gust of wind that my mouth literally dropped open. It came out of nowhere and roared through the tree over my head, sending leaves skittering from the branches in frightened little shivers. It was not so much angry as reproving—I felt reproved by it, and in the instant that it subsided, the cicadas, which had been maintaining a low, steady hum—so low and steady, in fact, as not to be noticeable—suddenly raised their pitch, and with it, their volume to a high, insistent whine, for all the world as though they, too, were protesting my petulance. It was almost deafening for a moment or two.

After it subsided, I sat in a chastened quiet.

“I’d like a picture, please,” I murmured, humbled.

Nothing came. My mind was a jumble of nothing. I knew that Philip was waiting for me for breakfast, so up I got, trying not to feel discouraged. God does not always answer, of course, and when He doesn’t . . .

As I walked along back to the hotel, smiling at the beauty around me, clutching my little notebook tightly, a picture flickered into my mind: wavered, faded, materialized. And then it faded again, as I dismissed it with a smirk. Nothing more than a picture from one of my childhood books. One of my favorites, in fact, but obviously so firmly established in my memory that my brain, hunting feverishly, had found it without effort. Oh well. God doesn’t have to speak to me the way He speaks to Sarah and to the saintly Scottish lady . . .

It never really occurred to me to wonder why that image, out of literally billions that must inhabit my brain. Especially when I had not seen it, or so much as thought of it in years. I can be kind of dumb that way, I guess. At any rate, a couple of weeks later I was sitting at my desk, grinding out my Hutchmoot talks—at great pain and effort, I might add. I was feeling like such a fake, a failure, a poser, a fraud . . . and I just laid my head down on my desk in complete and utter defeat.

“I just can’t do this, Lord,” I told Him. “I’m not one of these brilliant souls and I don’t know why I’m speaking at Hutchmoot and I don’t even know why I’m on The Rabbit Room…”

That kind of thing. And as I moaned and mullygrubbed, that same picture from the island morning came back into my mind. As at an audible charge, I immediately got up and went downstairs to the bookcase. I knew right where it was: The Tasha Tudor Bedtime Book, one of my all-time favorites as a little girl. I turned to the well-known page with a trembling heart (and trembling hand), and stared at the illustration of “The Star Dipper.” It was just as I remembered it: the little cottage, the girl and her mother gazing up into the night sky, the corgi at their feet—and above them in the warm blue, the radiant formation of the Big Dipper. I read the story again with tears in my eyes.

The story goes that a little girl lives with her mother in a cottage at the edge of the wood. It has been a long, hot summer, and her mother is ill. Her mother sends her to the well to draw her up a dipper of water because she is so parched, but when the little girl endeavors to do this, she discovers that the well is dry. Undaunted, she sets out with her dipper into the dark night, certain of finding a hidden spring she knows of in the wood, the waters of which run cool and clear. Off she goes—but it is a dark night and the way is very difficult. Much more difficult than she had anticipated. It is so difficult that she fears she has lost her way. The branches tear at her face and her dress, and the stones cut her feet. She is near despair, but the thought of her mother and her great thirst drives her onwards. At last she comes out into a little clearing and there it is: the Hidden Spring. With joy she fills her tin dipper with the crystal water, thinking what healing it will be to her mother. Immediately, she proceeds to return the way whence she came, but somehow it’s not quite as dark. The lowly dipper glows with a faint light, just enough to guide her way. As she goes, she encounters an old man, bent with years. He begs a drink of her from her dipper, the night is so hot and the springs are all dry. Quickly reasoning that there is enough for her dear mother and enough for the poor old gentleman, the girl lowers her dipper that the man might have a drink. The water is so pure and cold that he is revived at once, and thanks her with blessings. Resuming her passage through the wood, the little girl notices that there is even more light than before. “Could it be that the moon has risen?” she wonders. But, no—it is the light of her little dipper, no longer tin, but shining silver in the dark night. Next she encounters a little dog, so tired and weary it can hardly beg, its tongue hanging out of its mouth for thirst. Without a word or a hesitation, the girl kneels and allows the dog to lap from her dipper, wherein she is thanked accordingly, as only doggies can do (and, to surmise from the illustration, he follows her home, which makes my heart glad, of course!). As she once more resumes her homeward journey, the little girl is amazed at the brightness shed across her path, for her dipper, no longer silver, has turned to a brilliant gold that lights her way. When she reaches her own cottage, she rushes in to her mother’s bedside and holds the golden dipper to her lips. The mother drinks with grateful alacrity, and the water is so cool, so refreshing and healing, that she feels well at once. The little girl sets the dipper on the table while she tells her mother of her adventures, but as she does, a kaleidoscope of light and color begins to flash about the room, like the sparkle of gems, and, suddenly, the once humble dipper flies out the window and shoots up into the night sky, no longer an earthly dipper at all, but a heavenly one, made of diamonds, so that all who saw it would remember the little girl’s hard passage through the dark wood and the loving gift she found there, bestowed with such generosity to all she met.

Before I was done with the story, I knew what God was saying to me. I knew that He wanted me to write and keep writing. And I knew what He wanted me to do with my writing, in one of the clearest, tenderest moments of insight I have ever had:

Fight your way through the Dark Wood. Find the Hidden Spring. And bring back the Sacred Water you find there for the good of all. 

Find the Hidden Spring.

Since that time, the image of the Hidden Spring has given me courage again and again to just keep doing this thing—to make it my sacred charge and pilgrimage, whether a living soul validates it or not. This work is not of me—this great Thirst is not mine to quench. That doesn’t mean that the Dark Wood is not terrifying at times. But that gives me strength, even when I’m plunging through it—to know that the Spring is there and that it flows with the original Creative Love that set the stars in the heavens and calls them each by name. It’s a deep, bone-level call, at once rigorous and refreshing. I did not make the Spring; I do not fill it with water. But it’s there. And Love will show me the way to it. I can count on that. Mine is only to do as I’ve been charged and leave the matter to God.

Carey Wallace expressed the harmony between creative discipline and spiritual discipline in a way I won’t forget:

…An artist’s failure to work is rarely mechanical—fingers that fail to curl around a pen or a brush—but spiritual: a fear that has rendered them artistically blind or deaf. The solution to them all is to draw closer to God, the source of all order, rest, and freedom, and of every image, sound, and word.

Go then, saints beloved of God, and find your Hidden Spring—the world is parched for its water. I’ll be brave for you, if you’ll be brave for me.